NAIROBI, Kenya | Many parts of Africa are experiencing significant droughts, and the contribution of the African Catholic Church to humanitarian aid in these drought-stricken regions is significant. In the convoys delivering food, water and medicines, it is common to see officials of Caritas Internationalis or other Catholic agencies joining in the efforts to save lives.
The aid is going to some of the remotest parts of the world, where there are no roads or any other form infrastructure. Some of the regions are war zones, where the crack of Kalashnikovs rings out every day. The conflicts have worsened the drought situations, wiping out people’s coping mechanisms or disrupting the work of those attempting to intervene and help, including those connected with the Church.
While droughts in Africa are not new, the actions of Catholic agencies are vital for in the continent, which has one of the fastest-growing Catholic populations in the world. As much as 17.3% of the global 1.285 billion Catholics live in Africa. Analysts say that the large following helps inspire and compel the Church to act.
Several droughts since 2005
Recently, the recurring droughts have become a too-familiar spectacle on the continent. According to the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, there have been droughts in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015, 2016, and now 2017. The common features through these years characterized by drought are immense suffering, scarcity of resources, and deaths.
The droughts have scorched crops on farms, dried water sources, and destroyed pastures for livestock. The result has been a huge destruction of livelihoods for periods extending into two consecutive seasons or more.
In the past, the pressure had been felt more in rural areas, but food prices have shot-up in urban areas as well, disrupting lives in cities and towns. In the rural areas, millions of people are facing starvation, including thousands of children who are facing the risk of malnutrition.
According to the UN, more than 17 million people in nine African countries are facing hunger. The list reaches 17 countries when counting those which are struggling to cope with the impacts of drought. The total population at risk is estimated at 38 million in these countries.
At the moment, Ethiopia has more than 5.7 million in need of food aid.
Somalia – where half of the population is suffering severe drought – slipped into famine six years ago. This forced thousands to flee into Kenya and the camp of Dadaab, making it the largest refugee settlement at the time. With the ongoing war and terrorist activity by al-Shabaab – the al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa – concerns are being expressed that the country may slip into another famine.
“I think that if the rains which come from April to May fail, there is the risk of famine,” said Bishop Giorgio Bertin in a recent interview. Bertin is the apostolic administrator of Mogadishu and the whole of Somalia. “Some areas, like Puntland, in the South-West region, and Eastern Sanaag and Sool, are more hit than others.”
“The network of Caritas through Catholic Relief Service (CRS), Trocaire and Caritas Somalia are engaged in some forms of response: food distribution, health and others,” added the bishop.
In South Sudan, an on-going war has driven and exacerbated serious food shortages in the country. In February, the UN officially declared a famine in the world’s youngest nation, warning that war and a collapsing economy had left 100,000 people at risk of starvation and another 1 million on the brink of famine. The country’s people, who are predominantly farmers, had exhausted their means of survival, and lost their livestock, even their farming tools, officials said.
According to the country’s bishops, while there had been poor rains in many parts of the country, there was no doubt the famine is man-made, a result of poor management.
“Hunger, in turn, creates insecurity, in a vicious circle in which the hungry man, especially if he has a gun, may resort to looting to feed himself and his family,” said the bishops of South Sudan, in a pastoral letter titled “A Voice Cries in the Wilderness.”
Across the continent, the statistics are alarming. In Malawi, there are over 6 million hungry; 4 million in Zimbabwe; and 3 million in Burundi, a country with many Catholics. Insecurity affecting half of the population has also driven food shortages. Other countries suffering in this way include Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, Rwanda, Eritrea and Djibouti.
In spite of the Catholic bishops in Tanzania warning of a severe drought in January, the East African nation’s government has been in denial, saying that businessmen were forcing a shortage to gain profits through maize importation.
“It is the rainy and farming season….but we are witnessing a weather pattern that is different. There has been no rain to allow agricultural production to continue,” warned Bishop Tarcisius Ngalalekumtwa, the president of Tanzania Episcopal conference, while calling for prayers.
Short term aid, long term solutions
The immediate response by the Catholic Church has been the delivery of food aid and other non-food items to the affected regions. Bishops and priests have collected food from local parishes, which has been delivered to the drought-affected people.
In February, Catholics in Nairobi joined to collect and deliver food and non-food items to people severely affected by drought in the Kenyan dioceses of Marsabit and Isiolo. In Kenya, nearly three million people are trapped in severe drought, largely blamed on the climate change.
“We are very impressed that after the appeal of Christians in the Archdiocese of Nairobi, food and non-food items amounting to 80 tonnes have been contributed within the last month,” said Cardinal John Njue.
The collection followed a February national appeal by the Bishops. While announcing the appeal, the clerics said they had found out that there was suffering, desperation and hopelessness and that death was imminent in some regions.
“The number of people is huge,” Bishop Philip Anyolo of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (KCCB) said in statement.
Considering long-term solutions, the Catholic Church has been working to improve food security in countries across Africa.
The church has been promoting agricultural approaches that increase food production, improve livelihoods, and maximize the idle farm lands owned by the church, which is often underutilized.
Apart from seeking to feed the hungry, the church has been seeking to improve the lives of parishioners and communities through successful agricultural enterprise. It has also set up plans to build structures to improve its capacity to produce food on its farms.
At the same time, church experts express concern on the overreliance on maize as a staple food in many countries. While teaching the communities how to diversify what they eat, there is a wide belief that mass production of good performing crops in semi-arid area can help bridge the shortages.
There is also a strong belief that real food security can be achieved through change in lifestyles, in the use of natural resources and land. The church has also sought to address the wastage of food between the harvest and by the time it reaches the consumers. More is lost through poor storage.
It also owns massive lands in the dioceses, parishes, seminaries and monasteries, much of which is believed to be suitable for farming. Irrigation in some of these lands has also been considered as one of the ways through which Africa can beat food shortages.
“We want to produce food and create employment for our people. We believe we can as a church,” Fr. Celestino Bundi, Kenya’s national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies, said recently in an interview.